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American Idol Is Just A Popularity Contest--And That's A Good Thing

Another week, another American Idol ratings victory.   The smash-hit televised singing competition continues to steamroll the prime-time competition in its twelfth season.  In its first season without acerbic, charismatic host and record executive Simon Cowell, the show now features a panel of “experts”—including musicians like Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler—judging amateur musicians for the chance to win a record deal.  After the initial few rounds, though, viewers, not the expert judges, pick who advances, voting via text message, telephone and the Internet. In more than one instance, American Idol—and its viewers—came under fire for selecting candidates based on criteria other than singing ability.  It can be infuriating for anyone who's been passed-over for a promotion by a prettier, more charismatic, less capable colleague.  But might popularity contests actually produce better performances and a better contest?

Professor J. Atsu Amegashie, at the University of Guelph in Ontario, thinks so. In a 2009 study in the Journal for Cultural Economics, Amegashie uses game theory to argue that “if [American Idol] viewers voted based solely on singing performance, low-ability contestants may not strive hard enough because their chances of winning the competition will be very small.” Low-ability contestants assume that other characteristics (a crazy haircut, good looks, the best fashion sense, or a great smile) will give them a fighting chance, and thus try harder. Furthermore Amageshie finds that, because of the increased effort of the low-ability contestants and uncertainty about the voters, the high-ability contestants decide to step up their performance as well.  Ultimately, then, the best contestant still wins, which is no doubt reflected in the chart-topping success of most American Idol finalists (though season eight runner-up Adam Lambert might say otherwise).

For more research on what’s in the news, check out the rest of TNR’s newest blog, The Study.